Suddenly, the world abounds in “inflection points.” What had been the preserve of mathematicians spread to the world of business in the late 1990’s when Intel CEO Andy Grove characterized the challenging, make-or-break moments of a company’s history as ‘inflection points”. Today, a romp through contemporary newspapers, magazines, and journals reveals inflection points in the pandemic, electoral politics, race relations, China relations, de-regulation, consumer habits, and almost anything else you can think of. It seems a good time to think about these usages, especially as they relate to our most pressing social and political conflicts.
Inflection refers to the point of a curve at which a change in the direction of the curvature occurs.
In the business literature that expanded its usage the inflection point refers to a time of sudden, noticeable or important change in an industry, company, markets, etc..
A survey of business publications and trainings generally describe a “strategic inflection point” as the point at which something fundamental has permanently changed such that the company cannot continue to use its previous methods and expect to survive.
Obviously, inflection points can only be identified with any degree of certainty after the new curve has become established, where it is clear something new has been established.
One author (whose name and publication I have lost track of) observes that at the inflection point markets are barraged by mixed messages on a daily basis; they “appear to suffer from multiple personality disorder when we study it on a short-term basis, like daily.” Only with the benefit of hindsight can we see the inflection point at which, for example, the microprocessor changed everything.
And so when we use the idea of an inflection point about the pandemic, about the November election, or about race relations in this country we should humbly acknowledge that we are using it in the middle of a “barrage of mixed messages.” In all of these instances, we make predictions with whatever limited data about COVID cases, or poll results that we have available but we are predicting an uncertain future under circumstances where we have a strong emotional attraction to the idea that things can’t possibly continue on their current course and will surely change direction. But, of course, they can. Like my golf swing, and my unproductive and stilted communications with my family over politics and religion, conflictual or unproductive patterns can be maintained for decades.
Our susceptibility to predictions that assuage our fears and frustrations is only part of the danger because predictions about fundamental turning points, the expectation of dramatic change, can be interpreted as an inevitable result of larger social forces that the individual can simply observe. This is especially so when we can focus on numbers that obscure the unpredictability of social and political change. As political scientist Deborah Stone has observed, the development of seemingly objective measurements (unemployment rates, hate crimes, learning disabilities, etc.) shifts our perspective so that long term and complex social problems whose solutions require sustained political and social engagement are presented as individual deviations from the norm that are amenable to limited and discrete interventions by others (e.g. professionals or others whose job it is to deal with these deviations).
Even if we avoid passivity and engage in efforts to make change, the idea of an inflection point carries with it the unwarranted assumption that there is a single moment that we can identify when our efforts can stop or be greatly reduced because the tide has turned. This danger is especially pronounced when we focus solely on the November election to stop the erosion of democratic processes and the rise of intolerance. The right wing media ecosystem, the corruption of our electoral system, the consolidation of corporate power, armed and dangerous white supremacists, and the one-third of Americans willing to support authoritarian leaders so long as they restrict abortion and make life miserable for immigrants and LGBTQ citizens are not going anywhere on November 4th. What is required is long term sustained engagement and vigilance.
As Sharon Welch (A Feminist Ethic of Risk) notes, middle class Americans, lacking the experience of powerlessness in the face of economic inequality, generally equate acting ethically with controlling events and so they are vulnerable to cynicism and despair in the face of complex social and political challenges which require long and sustained action, especially since it is easier to give up on long term social change when one is comfortable in the present.
The concern that the proliferation of poll numbers suppresses voter turnout, the hubris in identifying a turning point after which the struggle for change can cease, and objections to reducing victims of police violence to numbers (say their names!) capture the essential elements of the danger: a loss of agency where individuals don’t feel a responsibility to engage in social change and a failure to recognize the fundamentally moral issues at stake. When M.L. King said that the “arc of history bends toward justice” it was a call to action, not a prognostication. In Sharon Welch’s lexicon, we must embrace and “ethic of risk” “that begins with the recognition that we cannot guarantee decisive changes in the near future or even in our lifetime,” a “definition of responsible action within the limits of bounded power,” where control is impossible and what is required is persistence in the face of repeated defeats.
Of course, the idea of an inflection point can be used to inspire action. although it seems a huge step down from “the arc of history” when it comes to inspirational rhetoric. To his credit, the Chancellor at UNC Greensboro used the idea before it was cool and tried to add some poetic heft in the process. In 2018 he rallied his university to the idea that they were at an inflection point–“poised to become a national model for how a university can blend opportunity, excellence and impact to transform the lives of individuals”—and noted that their effect is often felt as a well-known, widespread “sea change,” a phrase that comes from William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Act 2, Scene 1: Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are coral made / Those are pearls that were his eyes / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” He indicated that he added this for the sake of the English faculty, which is also why I include it here!
The heightened appreciation that this is a key moment in American history and that the future of our communities and democratic forms are at stake is an essential component of a call to action but a deep breath is required to gird ourselves for a what needs to be a very long struggle. It is tempting to think that we can quickly take decisive corrective measures and return to a preoccupation with our personal lives and trust that a new cycle of positive change will perpetuate itself.
But there is no political and social corollary to the microprocessor. Only a small number of technicians and investors were required to bring the invention into the world and to the market. All that was required to ensure its spread were individual desires for convenience, power, and profit.
At the great risk of grandiosity, what we face today requires that we join with others to invent and reinvent a new political and social reality. No one really knows how to do this. No one really knows how bad things will get but speaking for myself (the quintessential white middle class male) I am still struggling to accept that my last 15 or 20 years on the planet will likely be unstable and dangerous; still struggling to envision ways to be happy without taking refuge in the idea of a decisive turning point or a return to a “normal” that was only comfortable and fair for people like me.